When reading Mesoamerican archeologists I am reminded of my father's technique of storytelling. He would overflow with enthusiasm in telling you about names, dates and places. He would inform you that on such and such a date he went to such and such an area, where he witnessed such and such an event, before interacting with such and such a person. He was long on details, short on the significance of the event. I would want to demand: But what did the event mean to you? Were you changed in some important way by the encounter? So too, as you research Mesoamerica, an archeologist might inform you about the difficulties of an excavation, the weather conditions on the plateau, the number of levels uncovered at the site, the exact placement of the objects in a tomb.
I read, in Linda Manzanilla's paper The Construction of the Underworld in Central Mexico, that: Frogs and springs are also depicted in close association. (See de la Fuente 1986, II: 223) . I want to respond: Great. Just what, exactly, does this information have to do with you?
Please follow the original dictates of empiricism. Put small faith in abstraction, but rather test each fact and theory against experience. Do not forget to include your own consciousness of self in the equation–the poltergeist factor–since even the most objective of frogs must be interpreted by a subject. An experience must belong to someone–a soul, perhaps, with a history. The embedded reporter should not be unprepared for death. Please spell out the details of your close association with the underworld. Did your body turn to water? Did you have a dream about transformation? How were you changed by your encounter with the frog?
Even as the accuracy of my scholarship expands, and my belief that each urban shaman should be held to rigorous standards of confabulation grows, I find myself still hungry for adventurous interpretations. A part of this frustration has to do with the nature of any academic discipline. Archaeology is objective–in its penis envy. Its practitioners want their work to be accepted as hard science.
Intuitions are not facts, and should not be treated as such–as evidenced by Heinrich Schliemann in his discovery of Troy; he was unfortunately not informed of this prohibition. As an artist and a poet, I want to put myself into each aspect of the story, to resurrect the inner life of symbols.
At another level, the difficulty has to do with the number of records that have been destroyed. The sheer scale of the Mesoamerican catastrophe is almost beyond imagination. Of course, such things are nothing if not common. In pursuit of a dream, as absolute as sudden death, like demons drunk on the blood of the crucified lord, conquistadors and monks expunged as thoroughly as they could the knowledge of the Aztecs. A few tokens were kept as souvenirs. Glyphs of the Maya, for so long protected under nets of jungle camouflage, have only recently begun to speak. When it comes to Teotihuacan, that almost extraterrestrial factory complex transplanted to a valley, even by the time of the Aztecs its oral traditions had disappeared. We have objects but no texts. No descendants spin a modified version of the story of their migration.
It is possible to perceive a connection between the cultures of Mesoamerica. Far beneath the Earth, the fingers of a tradition move like lava. A city suddenly erupts. It is difficult to say where one movement stops and another starts. There is a gestalt under the chaos, whose magnetic force can be felt. The poet observes the long arms of the organizing metaphors.
A group disappears. With the passage of three centuries another group appears, almost but not quite connected to the first.
Carving glyphs in stone in no way guaranteed that the story, as told and understood by its creators, could be read. The audience for whom the story was intended might not exist for many years, at a more opaque point in the time-cycle, when the language had been almost, but not yet entirely, lost.
A monument was at best a memory cue, a challenge thrown at one's more ignorant descendants that they should reinvent the story. Simultaneously, an immovable object had been left to stand guard against the living, to prevent full access to the knowledge that existed after death. Creative violence was the necessary means for overcoming the anxiety of influence.
Of course, it is my contention that no language can be lost, and that each glyph points to an audience that is not in our dimension.
Let us step from the wheel of history to the valley that spreads beneath the peak of Cerro Gordo. There is blood in the sky. It is 628 AD. Is there any reason that this date should be important? The vertical and the horizontal roads have been scheduled to intersect. Smoke spreads from the volcano. First towering 40 miles upward, like a mushroom, the pyroclastic flow then belches across continents. At Teotihuacan a red cloud lands on a statue. It is a speech scroll projected from the other side of space, which the statue takes for its own. Armies march. There are gods behind the calendar. Stars employ catastrophes, like the verbs of some strange but still oddly familiar language, to communicate their urges to totemic clans.
Each fact or event serves also as an overdetermined symbol. It has both a physical and a metaphysical aspect. A human being is made of both a tonal and a nagual (in Nahuatl); of one part trapped in time and space, and of another part relatively free of them. Metaphor is a weapon that can cut through stupor, a key to the space beyond the precession of the equinox. It has the power to reintegrate the lost parts of the one discontinuous network. Thus even history must be read as poetry. Chaos comes and goes through a trap door to the North.
Invisible to the living, as obscure as the god cemented face down in the drainage duct, as incomprehensible as the layers of art that the Olmecs planted beneath La Venta , there are worlds before our own.
Does time in actuality pass, or is it only real to our perception as the participants in a story? Events must be laid out in a sequence so that everything does not occur at once. 260 days lead inexorably to 5,125 years, and then on to 42,000,000 years, and beyond. We do not perceive the interdependent actions that give rise to one cycle as simultaneous. We would probably respond with fear to such a kaleidoscopic vision. The spider goddess, whom the Aztecs would name Toci, may even now rule from her mural at Tepantitla.
The mother of creation was good at Teotihuacan, but bad at Texcoco. It would seem that the Aztec lords transplanted her evil twin as by accident. Perhaps she became addicted to industrial strength sacrifice. Prey to extremes of both ecstasy and boredom, a taste for new sensations darkened her once more generous nature. Were things different in the good old days before she taught the animals husbandry?
Let us posit that the seers of Teotihuacan were the bureaucrats of a new transparent state, a post-literate meeting place where all past symbols could be disregarded as irrelevant. Perhaps the World Wide Web is not a modern invention after all. Pens in pocket, its creators follow back the threads of a hallucinated geometry, as a spider waits in the shadows.
If we ignore Toci, it is not safe to
assume that she will also ignore us. It may be in our best interest to learn
the grammar of her language. The rules are few. They are difficult to follow
but impossible to disobey. The web is wider than the macrocosm. No exit is left
Always, it is important to feel joy. We
must take possession of the logarithmic spiral of the Apocalypse, in order to
craft useful vehicles from our fears. We must reconfigure the control loop of
Can a secret be transmitted from the
large mind of an omnivore to the small mind of her prey? Humanoids are the
food of Toci. Forever young, she is the grandmother of the world. She is
perhaps pleased to observe each stage of her victims maturation. Are we the
uncooperative subjects of an experiment in sacrifice, the one she wove before
the present Earth existed, whose present phase will end in 2012? Or in 968, or in 1519, or in1856, or in 2743, or in 37973or on some other date as of yet to be
For always, it is a date that is
somehow immanent, and yet obscure. It presents us with an ultimatum.
Our hearts recoil at the touch of the
flint knife, as we run from the ritual dismemberment of the timewave.
I thought to myself: the Mesoamerican world is large, almost incomprehensibly so. I will start small. Are there any images to which I feel a strong connection? Are there any figures with whom I could nurse a mutual understanding, who are also connected to each other, who in their own way, even now, are more or less alive, and with whom I could productively interact? There are.
Let me compare two diagrams of a figure and a cave, one a petroglyph from the Olmec site of Chalcatzingo, and one a mural from Teotihuacan.
Focus your attention on the image of the shamanic lord in the mural at Tepantitla, an area of Teotihuacan, and on the cloud-like vehicle on which he stands. (See illustration 3.) The lines of our perspective will converge on a toad. Is the composition not similar to that of the Olmec petroglyph? Perhaps one work grew from the other, like a leaf from a branch, or a branch from a much larger branch. It would surely be a mistake to take for granted that the later work is a more mature expression of the earlier cosmology. The late work could just as easily represent a detour. It could be viewed as the degenerate offshoot of a once uncorrupted vision, a mutant birth. But the similarity is no doubt accidental.
The roles of the two cultures could also be reversed if we project the point of origin to the future. We have after all built our proposition on a wheel. Each accident could be the uncanny artwork of a present but non-local cause. The effect is a culture conjured from black water, a seed projected into astronomical detail. Let us say that the images from Tepantitla and Chalcatzingo are now implanted in a story that the god of war tells most often in reverse, in a kind of pornographic patois, when he chooses to speak at all.
The calendar throws shadows from a symbol that existed before the Earth.
Let us travel to Chalcatzingo at the eastern end of Morelos, where an igneous plug marks the pass that leads to the Valley of Puebla. There we will find Petroglyph 1. The composition is simple, more or less. It is not baroque in the manner of the Maya. Its clear lines introduce us at a glance to the mysteries of the Olmec cosmos .
Extend your hand to touch the Jaguar Shaman, who sits fasting in his cave, where he serves as a surrogate for the god of storms. Through his own transport he activates the potency of the mountain. This hollow mountain was the altepetl, the water mountain, the erected strength of the underworld, whose inner life was oceanic in its wealth .
This image is the prototype, the seed of further conjurations. In later days the entombed king would catalyze the reactor shafts of the pyramid, splitting the atom, transforming the mountain into a kind of nuclear power plant.
Observe the three tiers of the Mesoamerican cosmos: the underworld, the Earth, and the upperworld. The calendar rules. Peace is death. Life is its own worst enemy. It wounds itself. Death is a staged hallucination. The body of the god turns inside out.
It would appear that the shamanic lord been swallowed by a monster . The cave is perhaps dark. To him its convex undulations are revealed as a pulsation of phosphorescence. Protected by the monster's coils, his telekinetic actions reach out of the womb of superconsciousness. Deprivation only serves to amplify his power.
Smoke spirals from the mouth of the cave. To make puppets dance the dead lord throws his voice.
Filled to bursting, there are three clouds in the sky. They are the three seeds that preceded the creation, or at least the creation that we know about. They are the three stones of the hearth. There are not four clouds and not two. The sky overflows. If clouds were as numerous as the constellations there would still be only three. Phallic raindrops fall on the maize . The small plants grow.
Let us turn now to Teotihuacan, to a mural known as The Tlalocan of Tipantitla. In the scene before us, the artist has stood a figure at the top, rather than inside of, an altepetl, the water mountain of which I previously spoke. His body completes the contour of the archetype. The raingod, whom the Aztecs would call Tlaloc, was thought to inhabit the interior of such a mountain. There he ruled the phenomena of a wonderland called Tlalocan, a place of interconnection, which served as a kind of cosmic elevator shaft.
Down flew up. It allowed forces from the primordial ocean to communicate with the stars. Death instructed the almost gods in the arts of confabulation. The mountain was an inverted jug. It was filled with currents and overflowed with signs .
The toad called Bufo Marinus inflates inside of a cave. He is the mastermind behind the cycles of the moon. There is a cave inside of a cave, the tunnels at whose edges intersect. Fishes swim through them. They brim with heartless offerings and appropriated artwork. Large leaves undulate in the water.
In the belly of the beast observe the three stones of the hearth, which are also the three pyramids of the sun, the moon and Quetzalcoatl.
The back of the toad Bufo secretes the drug bufotenine . The potent hallucinogen is the fuel for transformation. It explodes the shaman's body. With its skin turned inside or out, the cave appears to be a vehicle for shamanic exploration. It looks as puffy as a cloud, signifying, perhaps, that our experience on Earth is a kind of hallucination. The shaman fasts at the moveable feast.
The ambassador to the upper worlds towers from the top of the externalized cave, the momentarily solid surface of the cloud. Corn stalks twist like serpents. Arms reach from the underworld. Seeds flower, exploding into space.
Like Janus, the shamanic lord or victim appears to have two faces, one of which looks forward to the future. The other face projects from the dark side of the skull, like a pyrite mirror from a warrior's back. The contending inhabitants of one body meet in the mystery of the natal soft spot, the cleft that scars the preexistent seed, the smoky terminal through which constellations run.
The idea of a cleft finds its image in the very geography of Teotihuacan . If you direct your eyes down the North/South axis of the city, called Miccaotli by the Aztecs, your vision will at length climb the steps of the Pyramid of the Moon. Above this looms the cleft of Cerro Gordo, a dead volcano.
It is the sign of an earlier creation that now appears to us as natural. The below is the image of the above. The late is the image of the early, as history is the image of a myth, which still continues. Duality rips like a lightning flash through every level of creation.
Is not the posture of the shamanic figure odd? The chest is pushed out, like that of a bird, like that of a victim bent backwards on the sacrificial stone.
It is perhaps not an accident that the figure, and not just the head, can be viewed in several ways; in the pose there is an irreducible element of duality. One arm is bent at the elbow, with the hand perhaps resting jauntily on the hip.
Or the shaman is in fact a prisoner of war, with both of his arms bent up and tied behind his back. If the one arm is free, it appears to lift a flowering branch as an offering to the gods. This completes, as I have said, the contour of the mountain. If the shaman's arms are bound, a beam shoots from the head to again complete the archetype.
Unlike the petroglyph at Chalcatzingo which, however characteristic of its makers, was a one of a kind design, the image from Tepantitla was perhaps produced with a stencil, to be repeated many times throughout the complex . It might also have been reproduced in living spaces for the enjoyment of the elite. Though sacred, this new art was also a commodity. The conservative shaman was perhaps disgusted by so obvious a display of wealth. Craftsmen were traded like soybean futures, like a proof of the existence of the third dimension. Artists became the prizes in a war of the totemic clans.
It would certainly be many years before the triumph of the myth of the romantic genius, whose role, if it existed at all, only the king was allowed to play. Artists were the well fed servants of a theocratic hive. Technicians of the sacred told them what to do. They were drones whose job was to propagate the myths that others had created.
The gods again went underground. Escorted by his shadow, the outcast shaman practiced his again prehistoric craft.
Steam rises from the jungle. Stories move the continents. The gods behind the calendar referee the ball game. From the time the first Olmec appeared as from a cloud to set foot on La Venta, the language of Mesoamerican symbols has been remarkably consistent. The context is what changes.
At its height, Teotihuacan had perhaps as many as 200,000 inhabitants, making it, at that time, the sixth largest city in the world . This is very large indeed for a migratory group, whose power came from methods of hallucinatory transport. Did shamanic vision become a tool of propaganda? It is not difficult to imagine that the prophet at the end became a proto-fascist, a decorated prestidigitator, a contortionist without a soul, an omen-producing bureaucrat.
The great year darkens. This transformation of ideals may strike you as uncannily familiar.
If the state was first constructed to serve as the landing pad for a cosmology, cosmology would later be drafted to expand the power of the state. The servants of the chemically altered gods became omnivorous.
In a war against disinformation we strip back layer after layer, to confront at the bottom our own reflection in the mirror. In its hypnotic standardization, in the psychic and physical displacement of its inhabitants, who had first met joyously at the start of a brave cross-cultural experiment, we can easily regard Teotihuacan the prototype of the modern world.
Stars were fed on an industrial scale. Workers cooperated in their own exploitation. They expected to be kept in awe. Miracles were projected onto clouds. Deluged by immigrants, the city planners grew paranoid about the corruption of their symbols. Rules were strict. Images were mass produced. The ceramic parts of gods were interchangeable . If one rain god was good, more were certainly better. Was mass production a tribute to the power of the seed?
The calendar turns. It is important always to remember that time is circular as well as linear. Antarctica melts. Waves from the Atlantic lap the Colorado coast.
What lessons did the gods learn in the dark before the sea gave birth to the cone of power? The result of so much heroic sacrifice is death. A wheel projects the telos, the goal of nine months of development in the great womb of the underworld, the end which serves as a strange attractor.
Superconsciousness acts only at a distance. The effect is still a culture conjured from black water. There is nothing left of the great Siberian migration. It is as though it never was.
Archeological victims petrify in the world web of the mother. They stare at the atomic redevelopment of the sun. Like us, the last survivors of the industrial revolution, perhaps the proud inhabitants of Teotihuacan became the victims of their own success.
I would argue that the poet, as well as the artist, the yoga master and the dancer, should be a part of every archaeological team. Each has perfected a unique mode of perception. Each would bring different tools, and those tools would in turn create new and powerful ways to dig. The explorer of consciousness is the true heir to the empiricist tradition.
It is possible that the prophets went bad at Tepantitla. As they acted their hour on the stage, they saw no more and no less than the gods behind the calendar had determined that they should see. We would like to believe that our own knowledge is more advanced than theirs, but perhaps ancient technology was already in a sad state of decline, as I have previously said, with the present age at the tail end of devolution.
By the time a crowd set fire to its temples, Teotehuacan was old, almost a hundred years older (at a minimum) than the city from which I write to you, and we can well imagine that each corporate shaman was aware of the infirmities of age. Time runs out, and down from the circumference. A clock's hands had been moved by ferocious energies of origin. Entropy enforces laws as to how much health and happiness is enough.
The seers of Teotihuacan are silent. We can perhaps hear an echo of their performance in the methods of the Aztec tlamatinime, or knowers of things, a group of specialists who used art instead of blood to communicate with other worlds . The chest could be cracked open. The still beating heart could be lifted to the gods without its being physically removed.
There was a pattern above the stars that humans could experience, directly, by a leap of creative courage. In xochitl, in cuicatl, flowers and songs were laid as offerings at the feet of the Lord and Lady of Duality, who viewed the drama from beyond all time, beyond the heavens in Omeyocan. Says David Carrasco: The power and truth of celestial forces could be encapsulated in the spoken word .
As time runs out in two directions, if it really moves at all, the same actors as in a dream pursue the same phenomena in different masks.
My first role model as a writer, and the catalyst to my teenage breakthrough into hyperspace, French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud advocated the systematic derangement of the senses. It was a Promethean strategy for transformation, for a time productive of the altered states he desired, that culminated at last in A Season In Hell. In his letter to Paul Demeny he asserts (as translated by Wallace Fowlie):
The poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences. Unspeakable torture where he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the one accursed- and the supreme Scholar!- because he reaches for the unknown!
…Let him die as he leaps through unheard of and unnamable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where the other one collapsed .
This approach might sound familiar to the jaguar prophet in his phosphorescent cave at Chalcatzingo. Should the dead awake to call suddenly for a doctor, it is probable that a PHD is not the type of doctor they would have in mind. The poet is closer to the Mesoamerican method of hallucination as a form of knowledge.
Bear with me as I dispatch our imaginary team to investigate the glyphs at Rio Azul. Red glyphs snake across the epidermis of the cave. On their heads the experts wear lamps.
The archaeologist provides to the experimental group a newly discovered alphabet of creation. She challenges the artist to respond to an ultimatum from the underworld, to coagulate the black waters of the ocean, to make bodies for the dead. Pots do not speak. A glyph is pregnant with a lost cosmology. A record of things past is not yet an experience. A surrogate must be found to tell the story, a poet whose ears are open, who can navigate each disjunction in the web of symbolic correspondences.
Reading thoughts with his feet, the yoga master stands on the shoulders of stone giants, now buried beneath the Earth. He slows and expands his breathing into space. He waits patiently for a surge of information.
The dancer reads with her bones and muscles the archetypal trance positions, and determines how each one points to a particular altered state, as prescribed by Felicitas Goodman in her book Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality . She follows where her body leads. She translates the technology of ecstatic transport into action. It is into her that the gods will once again descend.
Bats flap from a ruin. As branches crackle on the hearth, the members of the dig team crouch to compare their notes. Synergy transforms the team so that its parts cohere as a vehicle.
The dancer draws blood from the Milky Way. The artist paints with it. Spear in hand, an ancestor leaps from the poet's mouth. The Lord of Duality is impatient with the mathematics of Earth's evolution. Tribute is inadequate. He shifts on his chair. The Lady of Duality now strides across the ocean to view the renovated murals in the cave at San Bartolo.
The obsessive/compulsive habits of the archeologist help to ground the poet's energies; she corrects the grammar of his free associations if his instinct for magnetic north should stray.
In the Mayan text Cuceb, transposed from the words of Chilam Balam, there is a phrase that the jaguar in a prophet mask repeats to signify the end of a calendrical period. It is: They will go down to their wells, to their grottos once again . The poet also goes down to his well, located deep in the altapetl, in the mountain's transparent but impenetrable heart. He has trained himself in negative capability, the method prescribed by Keats.
He has internalized the wonders of the natural and the supernatural worlds.
There are gods behind the calendar. Each no doubt has an agenda. Let us say that the calendar itself has an agenda–a set of purposes as perfectly symmetrical as a wheel–as well as a methodology that appears so complex as to be almost untranslatable to a human scale. Industrial strength hallucinations of ecstatic death will out. Again, the gods will compete to jump head-first into bioengineering.
Black waters will tell. Accumulating powers, the ambassador from post-history waits patiently for a toad, for some seizure to provoke his reconfiguration in the image of the Zodiac, and for an accident to reveal the role that he is scheduled to perform.
4) Snake and Vessel, Brian George, 1990
1) Linda Manzanilla, The Construction of the Underworld in Central Mexico, University of Colorado Press, Boulder, Colorado, 2002, Page 96
2) Michael D. Coe, Mexico, From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Thames and Hudson, New York, New York, 1994, Page 68
3) David Carrasco, Religions of Mesoamerica, Waveland Press, Illinois, 1990, Page 39
4) Michael D. Coe, Mexico, From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Thames and Hudson, New York, New York, 1994, Page 78
5) Michael D. Coe, Mexico, From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Thames and Hudson, New York, New York, 1994, Page 68
6) David Carrasco, Religions of Mesoamerica, Waveland Press, Illinois, 1990, Page 32
7) Mary Ellen Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica, Thames and Hudson, London, 1982, Page 35
8) David Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1992, Page 135
9) Michael D. Coe, Mexico, From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Thames and Hudson, New York, New York, 1994, Page 69
10) Mary Ellen Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica, Thames and Hudson, London, 1982, Page 69
11) Mary Ellen Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica, Thames and Hudson, London, 1982, Pages 76-79
12) Mary Ellen Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica, Thames and Hudson, London, 1982, Page 69
13) Mary Ellen Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica, Thames and Hudson, London, 1982, Page 73
14) David Carrasco, Religions of Mesoamerica, Waveland Press, Illinois, 1990, Page 79
15) David Carrasco, Religions of Mesoamerica, Waveland Press, Illinois, 1990, Page 81
16) Walace Fowlie, Rimbaud;, Complete Works, Selected Letters, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1966, Page 307
17) Felicitas Goodman, Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1992
18) Ralph L. Roys and John Biehorst, Cuceb, from Four Masterworks of American Indian Literature, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1974, Pages 187-273